Fukushima: from the coasts of India’s Tamil Nadu to the halls of the German Bundestag, the word now stands for danger and deception, contamination and vulnerability. Every day brings new distress. Cesium-137 clings tenaciously to the soil and buildings of northeastern Japan. Radioactive fish promenade across the Pacific. Over 40% of children examined by the Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey have thyroid abnormalities. Contractors hired for cleanup operations rely on yakuza networks for a steady stream of disposable workers, and toss contaminated debris into forest glens and mountain streams when they think no one is looking. This “cleanup” is projected to take 40 years, cost 250 billion dollars. How could nuclear things possibly be commonplace?
Rubbish, says the nuclear industry: we are shocked (shocked!) by such irrationality. What was exceptional at Fukushima were the circumstances, not the technology. An earthquake-plus-tsunami—who could have predicted it? The event was certainly unfortunate, but we will treat it as a learning experience. Nothing irreversible has happened! The area can be decontaminated. No one has died from radiation poisoning. The only thing people are suffering from is radiophobia, a form of hysteria also observed after Chernobyl. Why is everyone always picking on us? We are misunderstood. Unloved. Those reactors were old. The new ones are different, and we need hundreds of them to counter global warming. The survival of the species depends on nuclear power once again becoming commonplace.
Exceptional or banal? It’s a perpetual question in the history of nuclear things. (And, perhaps also, of scientific discovery.)
In the beginning, there was The Bomb. It ended The War. Splitting the atom ruptured human history. Out with the age of empire, in with the nuclear age: so said the leaders of the “free world,” and their weaponeers who hotly pursued planet-pulverizing potential. But fear not! Focus instead on imminent planetary utopia. Electricity too cheap to meter, an end to hunger, cures for cancer. Working in the nuclear field was so much more fun than doing “conventional” science or engineering (and got so much more funding). Exceptional indeed, and in the best possible way.
Alas, there were spoilsports.
Breaking the building blocks of matter also created cracks in our chromosomes, dabbled with our DNA: so showed the geneticists who studied the generational effects of radiation exposure among the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Photos of those cities, censored for two decades, trickled out to reveal horrifying burns, peeling skin, and ashy landscapes. As ever-larger thermonuclear weapons exploded in the Nevadan desert and the Kazakh plains, the giant ants and towering lizards stomping through the reels of B-movies seemed harbingers of a radioactive future. Targeted cobalt-60 beams might treat tumors, but radiation exposure also caused cancer, leukemia, and other diseases. Citizens began to march: first against the weapons, then against the power plants. Exceptional, oh yes, but in the worst possible way.
Alarmed at the backlash, industry publicists did an about-face. Nuclear reactors were just another way to boil water, they insisted. They simply did so better and cheaper than other power plants: a mere 25 tons of uranium could produce the same amount of electricity as 3 million tons of coal. Plus, it offered energy independence. Europeans and Americans need no longer rely on fickle Middle East oil suppliers. Measured in dollars (or francs, or pounds) per life saved, the industry spends more money on safety than any other. And frankly, the fuss about radiation was just silly. Radioactivity was a natural phenomenon. People were exposed to radiation from all kinds of sources: plane flights, granite counter tops, kitty litter… not to mention X-rays, CT-scans, and other medical diagnostic tools. Even food! Especially bananas, which contained traces of a radioactive potassium isotope. Oh yes, bananas. You’d need to eat 20 million of them to get radiation poisoning. Some public relations genius even concocted the “banana equivalent dose” to offer a “friendly” way of explaining radiation doses. Though let’s pause to give radiation protection specialists some credit: they denounce the BED as totally misleading. Still, you can’t get much more banal than bananas.
For a while there, the nuclear power lobby felt certain of victory. Especially with global warming, the problem for which the nuclear solution had long been waiting. In January 2011, the French nuclear multinational Areva celebrated its tenth anniversary with an ad portraying nuclear power as the latest in humanity’s long romance with energy.
The last scene shows ecstatic young adults partying on a rooftop. The voice-over chirrups: “the history of energy is still being written. Let’s keep writing it, but with less CO2.” Furious anti-nuclear activists filed a complaint with France’s advertising ethics board, essentially arguing that the ad inappropriately banalized nuclear power.
Then came Fukushima. It brought the best bananization – oops, I mean banalization – effort yet: a 4-minute animation (apparently created by private citizens) aimed at explaining the accident to Japanese children.
Ever since the big earthquake, Nuclear Boy has had an upset stomach. <Squirt squirt.> “Unhh, unhh, my tummy hurts! I can’t hold my poo any longer! Unhh!” Nuclear Boy is notorious for his stinky poo. It would surely ruin everyone’s day if he pooped!
We measured the stinky level around Nuclear Boy. Thankfully it wasn’t that stinky, so we figured he had just passed some gas. <More squirting sounds.>
The doctors come to visit. They work around the clock to ensure that Nuclear Boy doesn’t poop again. He does fart some more. But the smell will dissipate after a few weeks. Besides, Nuclear Boy isn’t the first to have this problem. First there was TMI Boy. And then there was Chernobyl Boy! He “literally” pooped in the classroom, and it was diarrhea, and it went all over the place. Gross. Even if that happens in Japan – and let’s hope it doesn’t, ewww! – it won’t be as bad as Chernobyl. Meanwhile, let’s pray for the people in Fukushima. That’s the least we can do for receiving Nuclear Boy’s energy for so many years.
Turns out, there is one thing more banal than bananas.
Gabrielle Hecht teaches history at the University of Michigan. Her recent book Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (MIT and Wits, 2012) has received numerous awards. She is currently interested in transnational toxic trash.
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The current hysteria about radiation is overblown, and the validity of the linear non-threshold dose-response model for very low dose rates is not exactly proved. People from areas with higher natural background, whether from soil or from cosmic rays (e.g. at higher altitudes) do not show any statistically significant effects of the increased doses they receive.
For a very good graphical representation of the doses of various magnitude, check out this chart.
As of Cs-137, it binds itself to the soil – therefore becoming less bioavailable for the plants. (It intercalates in the clay minerals and is stuck there.) The gamma radiation it produces, assuming the area is not Really Grossly contaminated, is minuscule. The concern is the internal dosage when the isotope is ingested, however it behaves chemically like potassium, and its biological half-life (time to excrete half of it) is only three months, which drastically reduces the dose received. (Cf. strontium-90 that behaves like calcium and is bound in bones. Bone-seekers are the problematic isotopes. Or iodine-131, which gets concentrated in the thyroid, but that one can be diluted with nonradioactive iodine (if provided on time, which did not happen in Chernobyl/Pripyat) and has a reasonably short half-life (Russians wisely did not destroy the I-131 contaminated milk but dried it and stored it until the problem vanished on its own).)
The banana-equivalent dose concept is said to originate on the RadSafe mailinglist, possibly as an in-joke of scientists and radiation workers. The XKCD chart does a better job.
For another interesting concept in risk/decision analysis, check out this one: